A benchmark of 1970s Hollywood and horror cinema, The Exorcist looms large in film and pop culture. If you haven’t seen it, you wonder if it will be as horrifying as its reputation suggests or a curiosity weakened by decades of escalating cinematic trauma. For me, it’s been near the top of my list of essential films that have somehow escaped me until now. But enough was enough: William Friedkin’s film had taunted me for too long.
After all that anticipation, The Exorcist turned out to be neither horrifying nor dull. It didn’t scare me, but that didn’t neutralise the impact of its true nature: an absorbing and precisely calibrated horror movie concerned more with reaction than action. The possession scenes are such a part of pop culture that we’ve probably seen most of them in clips over the years on TV and in documentaries (just a couple of weeks ago, the pea soup scene turned up on The Daily Show). But it turns out they’re only a small part of the film.
Despite its reputation for bringing unprecedented levels of gruesome body horror and disturbing sexual imagery to a mainstream movie, The Exorcist is mostly a slow, quiet burn. Friedkin focuses on how the characters deal with the possession and are forced to confront their own demons and anxieties. To that end, he doesn’t wait to introduce the priests until Regan’s mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) has no-one else to turn to. Jason Miller’s Father Karras is vital to the film’s thematic preoccupations, so we meet him early on as he deals with his ailing mother and diminishing faith, long before he learns of Regan. Many scenes are devoted to chronicling his life of quiet despair. Max von Sydow’s iconic Father Merrin, on the other hand, is introduced in a nearly wordless prologue set in an archaeological dig in Iraq and then disappears until the final half hour. Meanwhile, police detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) is investigating a death near the Chris and Regan’s house whose connection to the main plot isn’t entirely obvious at first. While The Exorcist may have influenced horror cinema ever since, structurally it deviates from the norm. In its descendants, Chris would be the main character, but here she’s part of an ensemble.
In these quieter moments, The Exorcist is so engaging and intriguing that they emerge as its chief virtue. The tangential nature of Karras and Kinderman’s stories grants the film a welcome variety and complexity, especially since each subplot is tinged with inscrutable loneliness. Karras is tormented by his choices in life and his suffering mother, while Kinderman longs for companionship under his easy-going exterior.
The magnetic acting in these scenes and Friedkin’s determined, confident direction are the film’s main attractions, not the twisting heads and pea soup vomit. Those sequences are mostly brief, and Friedkin edits them abruptly to omit the typical connective tissue. After Regan attacks her mother and barricades the door, he cuts to the next scene without explaining how Chris escaped. Seconds after Regan vomits on Karras, he’s clean and calm as he examines her art downstairs.
Friedkin doesn’t bother depicting the fallout of these encounters because he’s not interested in ratcheting up the tension. He’s happy to segregate the visceral encounters from the surrounding material because bleeding them together would distract from their silence and contemplation. This contrast makes the horror linger more deeply than it would by keeping the audience on edge about whether Regan will suddenly appear out of nowhere. He gives you time to reflect on what you’ve seen.
So, shocking as it may seem, The Exorcist is quite an understated film. We’re transfixed waiting to see what characters will say to each other – such as how they each react to the jarring notion of an exorcism in their all-too real world – rather than what gross thing Regan will do next. The unsettling feeling during her scenes that we’re glimpsing something deeply wrong and alien is key to the film’s success, but it’s only one element, not the defining one that the film’s notoriety implies.
To create such an atmosphere of dread and anxiety, Friedkin naturally relies on his actors. Burstyn has occasional outbursts of fury and fear, but Chris is mostly trying to hold it together, and Burstyn shows us those cracks in her facade as they form. Miller conveys a deep and abiding sadness, and von Sydow’s resigned acceptance of the horrors he’s witnessing renders them more chilling than Linda Blair’s makeup can. During the exorcism, there’s a tragic nobility in their unspoken awareness that they could fail or even die, which resonates beyond the supernatural context. The scene is weighed down with fatalism, yet the resolution still manages to shock.
The Exorcist wasn’t the intense experience I expected, but its palpable sense of inevitability and mourning was a captivating substitute. It also offers so much subtext and imagery for further viewings, like the inscrutable prologue and unpacking what Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty are saying about religion and the church. A few short sequences have come to unfairly define The Exorcist as graphic horror, when in truth it embodies the stark realism and hypnotic daring of 70s Hollywood as well as any other classic of the period.